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3 May 2023

The Red Christian

How Jacques Maritain, the most influential Catholic intellectual of the 20th century, changed the world.

By Madoc Cairns

It was a beautiful day in the long, hot summer of 1901 when Jacques Maritain decided to kill himself. He and his fiancée, Raïssa, a fellow student of philosophy at the Sorbonne, were walking in Paris’s botanical gardens discussing their future when they concluded that they didn’t have one. A year studying the positivist philosophies of the fin-de-siècle had left the young couple in despair. According to their professors, all human values and emotions were accidents of evolution. Life had no meaning, no ultimate purpose. The only thing finally knowable was that nothing could be finally known. To Jacques and Raïssa the total absence of meaning that followed was literally unlivable. “We wanted to die by a free act,” Raïssa wrote, “if it were impossible to live according to the truth.”

One day Jacques Maritain will be the most influential Catholic philosopher of the 20th century. His writings will found a movement – Christian Democracy – that changes history. President Biden said in a 2021 interview that Maritain’s theories still guide him. All that is yet to come. For now, he’s proudly secular, a socialist who pledged his life to the revolution aged 16: an enemy of the Catholic Church and everything it stands for. That summer day with Raïssa he stands at the “gates of death”. They choose death. And then to one fateful choice they add another. They give the universe a year to change their minds.

The universe responds. In the Autumn of 1901, the couple begin to take classes with Henri Bergson, the enfant terrible of French philosophy. He convinces them there is an absolute: a grounding for the values that animate human life. In 1905 they meet the decadent writer Léon Bloy. A scandalous mystic – “a second century Christian,” in Jacques’s words, “adrift in the third republic” – Bloy upends every assumption the Maritains had about Catholicism. The purpose of Christianity was not to live a good life, Bloy insisted, certainly not to live the kind of life the rich, complacent Christians he reviled considered good. The purpose of Christianity was to know God. And God was found, Bloy thought, exactly where the Church wasn’t looking: in the poor, in the exploited and the oppressed. A year after meeting Bloy, on 11 June 1906, Jacques and Raïssa are baptised into the Catholic Church. It was, in the words of Jacques’s biographer Ralph McInerny, the turning point of Maritain’s life.

In the following years Jacques begins an academic career, and at the Maritains’ house in Meudon, Versailles, a circle of intellectuals forms: poets like Charles Péguy, artists and musicians like Georges Roualt and Igor Stravinsky; mystics like the hermit Charles de Foucauld. It’s then that Jacques meets Charles Maurras. Maurras is an exponent of a far-right politics that, at the time he met Maritain, had no particular name. We call it fascism.

Maurras and his party, Action Française, blended nationalism and anti-Semitism with appeals to France’s Catholic heritage. Maurras and his disciples admired the Church as an authoritarian, hierarchical institution, but they were disgusted by her teachings of brotherly love: Hannah Arendt called them “Catholics without faith”. Maritain joined Action Française in 1911.

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[See also: Is the future of Christianity African?]

Given the Maritains’ politics and background – Raïssa was Jewish – Jacques’s membership of Action Française puzzles some historians. But his choice was neither mysterious nor, for a French Catholic, uncommon. In a culture and a state hostile to faith, Maurras offered Catholics political power and intellectual recognition. It was a bargain few believers turned down. And many of Maurras’s ideas were deeply rooted in the Catholic political imagination. For centuries the Church had worked to turn the clocks back: to reverse the French revolution and the enlightenment, to restore, by whatever means necessary, the world of the Catholic Middle Ages: Christendom. Democracy played little role in such a vision, the “rights of man” none. This Catholic opposition to modernity, according to the historian Arno J Mayer, was a critical factor in making democracy in Europe a contested idea well into the 20th century.

So for many Catholics, the pope’s condemnation of Action Française in 1927 – on the basis of Maurras’s documented contempt for Christianity – came as a profound shock. For Maritain it was the opportunity he had been waiting for to switch sides. Maurrasism’s violence, deceit and hatred of difference amounted, Maritain had realised, to a “practical anti-Christianity”. Such a bad tree could never bring forth good fruit. Democracy might well be incapable, as Maurras claimed, of providing the values it relied upon to survive. But it did not follow that it deserved to perish.

At the beginning of the 1930s, with fascism rising across Europe, it seemed all too likely that democracy would perish – and that Catholics would cheer the disaster on. Something had to be done. Jacques and Raïssa’s house at Meudon changed from philosophical salon to political hothouse. As the historian James Chappel records, Maritain began to build an international network of anti-fascist Christians. But practice was racing ahead of theory: Catholic anti-fascists lacked a solid theological justification for their struggle. The Church had denounced democracy for centuries. And, as Maritain’s friend Yves Simon put it, generations of Catholic attacks on the “rights of man” had in the end exalted not Thomas Aquinas but Adolf Hitler. The project to restore Christendom had always been quixotic; in the era of the totalitarian state it took on a new, monstrous aspect. Instrumentalised by fascism, the hope that earth could again touch heaven was helping to turn the world into hell.

In 1936 Maritain published Integral Humanism, his manifesto for a democratic, Catholic modernity. Oddly enough for a founding document of Catholic liberalism, it’s primarily a dialogue, not with the liberal tradition, but with Karl Marx. Maritain’s anti-fascist Catholic politics isn’t a defence of liberalism. It’s a call for revolution. Or revolutions, plural: Maritain, soon to be known as le Chrétien Rouge, outlines three.

[See also: Could I become Christian in a year?]

The first is a revolution of the Catholic imagination. Maritain has little interest in denouncing the medieval world. But the relationship of Christian politics to the Middle Ages should be one of analogy, not repetition. “There is only one Catholic Church,” he wrote, “there can be diverse Christendoms.” The fixed, hierarchical order of the Middle Ages was gone for good. The long interregnum of secular modernity was drawing to an apocalyptic close. And amid the unfolding catastrophe, Maritain saw a new Christendom rising from the ashes of the old.

But where medieval Christendom cohered around the principle of organic unity, the new Christendom would be built under a different “sign”: the freedom of the human person. Integral Humanism inverted the reactionary vision of Maurras’s Integral Nationalism, published a few years before. Maurras repeated the time-honoured Catholic condemnation of Enlightenment humanism as delusional; Maritain argued that humanism wasn’t false so much as it was, insofar as it dismissed transcendence, incomplete – “seeking the right things down wrong pathways”. Maurras demanded a Catholic state; Maritain called for a secular one. Maurras extolled nationalism and racism, social hierarchy and traditional gender roles; Maritain asked Christians to fight for a cosmopolitan, anti-imperialist, egalitarian future.

Maritain’s pluralism isn’t laïcité: the exclusion of religion from public life. Christianity would animate his new society as the soul animates the body. Laws would still reflect Christian teaching, he thought, but through spiritual attraction, not political domination: Jesus over Machiavelli. Societies that lacked a common belief system could unite in common tasks: ending poverty, promoting creativity, disseminating the atmosphere of fraternal love without which civic life asphyxiates. “Catholics have no allies,” Maritain quoted the poet Paul Claudel, “only friends.”

The second of Maritain’s revolutions was material. Pointing to the historian RH Tawney’s Religion and the Rise of Capitalism (1926), Maritain denounced Christianity’s retreat from social and economic life to the world of private morality. “Conversion to perishable goods,” Maritain added, “the definition of mortal sin, has become the general attitude of civilisation.” The exploitation and injustice of capitalism was a standing refutation of Christianity, Maritain wrote: spiritually corrupt and corrupting, it was the rotten taproot of modern unbelief. In defending capitalism against communists, the Church was cutting her own throat. “Radical change” is non-negotiable, Maritain writes, “not only in the material but also in the moral structure of the economy.” In his “personalist democracy”, industry would be placed under worker’s ownership and control; agriculture reorganised around small farms. This is the one explicit precondition of Maritain’s New Christendom: the “liquidation of capitalism”.

Integral Humanism had vertiginously high hopes. A total social and economic transformation is to be carried out with ethically “pure means”, over a period of decades, rejecting party politics and all alliances of convenience. Even the new Christendom – secular in form but Christian in content – is itself, Maritain admits, a living paradox. It can only be built and sustained by the grace of God. And to effect the spiritual transfiguration necessary to turn whole societies from hate to love, violence to peace, and vice to virtue, Catholics could no longer delegate holiness to a select clerical caste. Democracy depended on sanctity: on personal union with God. To save the world, Maritain thought, we needed not citizens, but saints. This was Integral Humanism’s third and final revolution: a revolution of the heart.

[See also: Is the future of Christianity African?]

Intellectually, Integral Humanism was a triumph, inspiring thinkers from the social critic Ivan Illich to the radical educator Paulo Freire and defining the shape of Catholic political philosophy for decades to come. Politically it was an abject failure. A few months after publication the Spanish Civil War began. Anti-clerical atrocities in the early stages of the war radicalised Catholics against the Republic. The Vatican’s few qualms about fascism dissipated. In July 1939 a new pope retracted his predecessor’s 1927 condemnation of Action Française. A few months later the Second World War began. In New York on a lecture tour as France fell to Hitler, Jacques and Raïssa became refugees overnight. They waited out the war in the US. When the dust settled on years of conflict, something unexpected emerged from the wreckage. The anti-fascist Catholics of the 1930s had spent the war in exile, in hiding or in concentration camps. As the war ended, they found themselves building states.

In Germany the Christian Democratic Union’s first manifesto in 1947 called for a “socialist economic order”; in France all three Christian parties demanded a political revolution; in Italy Integral Humanism inspired a faction of Christian Democrats – led by the future prime minister Amintore Fanfani – to declare capitalism and Catholicism fundamentally incompatible. Maritain’s star had never been higher. In 1948 he was asked to help draft the document that would become his most enduring legacy: the UN Declaration on Human Rights.

As the legal historian Samuel Moyn points out, the declaration, now seen as totemic of secular liberalism, began as anything but. An attempt by Catholics to build consensus between Marxists and liberals, the charter, overseen by Maritain, was left intentionally short on philosophical justification. Modern critics of the declaration, like Alasdair MacIntyre, see this lacunae as illustrative of the failure of the Enlightenment itself: incapable of providing the values it relied upon to survive. Maritain didn’t exactly disagree. “We agree about the rights,” he said at the time, “on condition that no one asks us why.” That condition simply reflected the nature of the problem he was attempting to solve: how to live together even when we don’t all think alike. Maritain found his solution in posing human rights not as ideas but as practical tasks, shared goals Maritain hoped would unite a divided world. As Maritain’s co-thinkers laid plans for a post-national politics from Brussels to Dakar, it seemed that those hopes might well be realised. On the far edge of the political horizon, for a brief moment, Maritain thought he could see the distant walls of his new Christendom, shining in the sun.

The moment passed. The vision proved a mirage. And as the Cold War began Maritain’s collaborators – from the French worker-priest movement to the American anarchist Dorothy Day – were marginalised. With their left purged, Christian Democrat leaders – and their analogues in the US Democrats and the UK Labour Party – brokered an alliance between Catholic liberals and conservatives on the common ground of anti-communism, “family values” and the “social market”: a soupçon of welfare, workplace rights and corporate subsidy. Enmeshed with the state and dedicated to whitewashing the Church’s fascist past, their concept of a Catholic modernity bore little resemblance to Integral Humanism’s. Maritain is sometimes called “the father of Christian Democracy”: he’d likely dispute his parentage. In 1966 he dismissed Christian politics since the war as a failure.

Even Maritain’s greatest victory – the endorsement of his ideas on human dignity by the Church at the 1962 Second Vatican Council – tasted bitter in his mouth. Instead of spiritual renewal, the council’s aftermath heralded theological confusion and institutional collapse. In Catholicism’s old heartlands, faith that flourished in persecution withered under consumer capitalism, just as Maritain predicted. With the end of the Cold War, Christian Democracy’s corresponding decline accelerated. One 2021 study estimated that since 1980 European Christian Democrats have lost nearly half their collective share of the vote. In Italy, France, Hungary and Belgium, once-hegemonic parties simply disappeared.

In the present-day ruins of Christian Europe, long-dead political forces have returned to life. Arendt’s “Catholics without faith” are on the march again, as the far-right across the West – from Marie le Pen to Donald Trump – adopts the symbols and causes of a declining, fearful Church. Among Catholic intellectuals, the project to restore Christendom – the “integralism” advocated by figures like the Harvard Law professor Adrian Vermeule and Compact magazine editor Sohrab Ahmari – enjoys an unlikely rebirth. The reconciliation between Catholicism and democracy Maritain effected is quietly coming undone.

It may well be past saving. Institutional Catholicism is still tied to the post-war consensus of privatised morality and political centrism that Maritain despaired over. And with more and more organisations defining abortion and euthanasia as fundamental human rights, a field Maritain hoped would unite the secular and the sacred has witnessed a steady separation of the two.

Joe Biden, in his own way, reflects both the success and the failure of Maritain’s project. The second Catholic president of the US, publicly comfortable with his faith as JFK never was, he’s proof that Maritain’s vision of a Catholic modernity took root, however imperfectly. But in his embrace of the market – and his tendency to keep his faith at arm’s length politically – he demonstrates how shallow those roots were. In this sense, Biden is the last Christian Democrat. It seems likely he will have no heirs.

In the months before his death on 28 April 1973, Maritain wrote an essay titled A Society Without Money. In it, he reiterated his belief that Marx was, in many respects, correct. Man had to change. But Marx was wrong to think politics alone could effect that change. Turning individuals from selfishness to fraternity, from violence to peace, from hatred to love: “this is the business of God’s grace.” Human beings interpret the world. Only God could change it.

But as he drew close to death, a hermit living in solitude near Raïssa’s grave in the French village of Kolbsheim, Maritain questioned his faith. The Second Vatican Council had promised a new pentecost, the fire of the holy spirit descending on believers to inspire and reveal. Maritain had hoped it would begin the spiritual revolution he’d longed for. The “true new fire” had been sent out from the council. But where had it gone? It wasn’t with Catholic liberals, “on their knees before the world”; it wasn’t with traditionalists, either, too fixated on the old Christendom to find the paths leading to the new.

It was preeminently, he considered, exactly where the Church wasn’t looking. The Sixties counterculture had a spark of it, he thought. They rightly condemned “a culture proud of its idolatry of science and of money, rotting from within”. The student protesters of 1968, who had exposed “a vast disorder, social and political as well as intellectual”, were willing, unlike their parents, to confront the “metaphysical evil” of the world they lived in. One co-thinker of Maritain’s put it this way: sous le pavé, l’esprit. Thirty years before, in the darkest days of the war, Raïssa, bedbound in New York, made an oddly similar prediction. “The Passion of the Holy Spirit,” she wrote, “has already begun in the hearts of the poor and the oppressed.” It will continue now and always, Raïssa thought: until the final revolution, and the raising of the dead.

[See also: Why Trad Wives aren’t real Christians]

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